Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Happily Ever After

First, for those who were curious about the book I mentioned yesterday, it was Why Him? Why Her? by Helen Fisher. I haven't read it thoroughly yet, so I'm not sure how applicable it might be to character development, and I'm iffy on how applicable it would be to real-world relationships, but if you're interested in character type studies, it might be worth checking out.

After more than a year of ballet, I think I'm finally getting it. Last night, for the first time I really felt like I was dancing and not just doing the steps. That doesn't mean I was doing it well, just that I was dancing instead of being so focused on each step.

Earlier this week there was a discussion in a romance-oriented blog about the importance of happily ever after. One of the appeals of the romance genre is the guaranteed happy ending -- you can read these books and be assured that it will all come out okay in the end. If you're reading for pleasure, you don't have to worry about a downer ending.

I can see the appeal of that, in general. I prefer happy endings. I want the good guys to win, the couple to get together, the mystery to be solved. I especially dislike pretentious sad endings -- the kind where the author seems to think he's making some kind of profound statement by exposing the futility and injustice of life by killing off characters in meaningless ways or breaking up couples for no real reason other than to prove that love can't prevail. And the really annoying sad endings are the ones where the book seems headed toward a happy ending, but then the author realizes the book might look too "commercial" and so he throws in a monkey wrench just to maintain his "literary" reputation.

However, I have a pretty broad definition of "happy" ending, much broader than you find in the romance genre, where "happily ever after" means that the hero and heroine are together in a committed relationship that will presumably last the rest of their lives -- and generally the hero and heroine are the couple that meets in the beginning of the book. I think an ending counts as happy if the protagonists are in the situation that's best for them both physically and spiritually/psychologically. In other words, they get what they really need to be the person they're meant to be. So I can see Casablanca as having a happy ending, even though (spoiler alert!) the couple doesn't end up together. But the events of the movie allowed Rick to reclaim some happy memories and get over his cynicism enough to contribute to the greater good, so he's in a better place at the end of the movie than he was at the beginning, ergo, happy ending. Given the circumstances of the story, it wouldn't have been a satisfying ending if the couple had ended up together because that would have meant they were being selfish. I even see something like To Kill a Mockingbird as having a happy ending, in spite of the injustice, because the protagonist -- the little girl -- learned something valuable and helped Boo out of his shell, so she was better off at the end than she was at the beginning -- maybe sadder, but on the path to being a better person as an adult.

While I like the idea of the couple getting together, that only works for me if I like both members of the couple and really feel like they're better off together. I definitely don't have a problem with a little bait-and-switch, where the guy the heroine meets at the beginning doesn't turn out to be the hero. I was thinking that one of the reasons I've drifted away from the romance genre is that while I like the happy ending, I don't so much like knowing for sure how a book will end, so I don't like that guarantee that the couple that meets at the beginning will be together at the end. But then I remembered that I've been inhaling Georgette Heyer books lately, and those have the usual romance structure, so I think most of my problems with the current romance genre have to do with the characters. I usually don't like most romance heroes. The alpha-male jerks are really annoying, and I usually like the best friend guys better, so I spend most of the book wanting the heroine to notice that other guy who treats her so much better, and her ending up with the jerk isn't so much a happy ending. Or else I think the heroine is a total ninny and hate the idea of her ending up with a guy I like. Sometimes there's a double-whammy and I hate both the jerk of a hero and the ninny of a too-stupid-to-live or bitchy heroine (and it is possible to write a strong female who isn't a total shrew).

The challenge for someone who likes happy endings but who has a really broad definition of a happy ending is finding the right books. Romances have guaranteed happy endings, but they're often not that satisfying to me because I do like a little suspense about the actual ending. Genre or commercial fiction is usually safe -- the mystery gets solved in mysteries and the heroes usually win in fantasy. Lately, science fiction has become a little more iffy because dystopias have become popular, and a bleak vision of the future is all the rage. General fiction is a lot more difficult. During the chick lit craze, a book packaged as chick lit was initially a safe bet -- you'd get a happy ending, but not always a predictable one. Then the genre got really popular and they packaged everything as chick lit, so you'd find a book about alcoholism and suicide with a pink cartoony cover. Now it's the other way around, where it's hard to dig books with happy endings out of all the dead baby/sick kid/coping with cancer/unravelling marriage books.

I guess I've been thinking about this because my membership in Romance Writers of America is up for renewal, and I'm seriously considering whether I want to renew. I can barely read genre romance these days, and I'm not sure I can imagine myself writing something that would be shelved within the romance genre. On the other hand, I like writing love stories within other genres, and I think my books appeal to a lot of romance readers. That's one of the few writing organizations that has a focus on education -- on learning about the craft and the business. On yet another hand (that third hand humanity will one day evolve so they can deal with cocktail parties and be able to hold a drink and plate while still having a hand free to eat with) a lot of the business information and publicity opportunities only apply to books shelved as romance and bought by the chains' romance buyers. I don't blame the organization. This is a case of "it's not you, it's me" where it really means I'm the one who's moved away and I don't expect the organization to change to meet my needs.

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